A pair of Northeastern students have created the university’s first blockchain club to help educate people about the benefits and potential of the electronic database behind cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and ether.
The Northeastern Blockchain Organization gets up and running in the fall of 2021 to share knowledge about blockchain technology’s potential to expand beyond digital currencies into mortgages and other contracts, according to club founders David Hsu and Bennett Thompson.
“Blockchain is basically the Internet 2.0,” says Hsu. “If you want to see where the growth opportunities are for the next 10 to 20 years, it’s going to be blockchain technology.”
In its simplest form, blockchain technology collects data—often algorithms—in groups, or blocks. When the blocks are filled, they are chained onto the previous block, forming a chain of data. All new information that follows the last block is compiled into a new block that will also be added to the chain once it is filled, and so on.
After a block has been added to the end of the blockchain, it is difficult to go back and alter the contents, making it a secure and anonymous way to conduct transactions. For example, Colonial Pipeline paid hackers a ransom in bitcoin after a cyberattack crippled gas delivery systems and led to long lines at filling stations in portions of the Southeastern United States.
Blockchain is increasingly capturing the attention of banks like JP Morgan and Wells Fargo, as well as venture capital firms, global money manager firms, and transnational companies. “If you look at IBM, Microsoft, Google, and a lot of the big venture capitalist firms, they all have dedicated crypto blockchain arms,” says Hsu, who is pursuing a graduate degree in computer science at Northeastern.
Hsu worked at Boston-based Wellington Management, a global financial services firm that has hired more software developers in the last three years than any other position, to write the code that powers blockchains.
“It’s happening in all industries right now,” Hsu says. “Everybody is hiring software developers.”
With that demand in mind, Hsu and Thompson want to position the blockchain club as a clearinghouse to exchange ideas and allow fellow students to gain hands-on experience with the technology.
“David and I want to help educate people on blockchain and crypto and show them that this is a real technology that has the chance to change the world,” Thompson says. They also want to give students an outlet where they can roll up their sleeves and learn how to write code.
“Working on blockchain projects is a lot different than just watching YouTube videos,” he says.
Figuring out the inner workings of blockchain is what initially ignited Thompson’s interest. After digital payments first captured his attention, he will be entering his second year in the fall to continue his computer science and business studies. Thompson is also involved with Disrupt, the university’s financial technology collaborative, but he thinks blockchain will have a greater impact than fintech.
He saw its potential when a guest speaker from a Boston venture capital firm spoke at a Disrupt meeting a few months ago about blockchain’s potential applications.
“We had a pretty big turnout, and students were asking ‘What is blockchain?’ ‘What is crypto?’ and so we knew even back then that there was growing interest in this space,” says Thompson, who invests in bitcoin, ether, helium, and other digital currencies. He says the blockchain club is taking a broader approach than just internet coins.
Programming will focus on education, including events such as outside speakers and a bi-weekly forum for people to chat about what’s going on in the blockchain space.
There is also a hands-on component by which students can launch their own nodes, which form the infrastructure of a blockchain. Nodes are used by developers for building blockchain applications such as smart contracts, an agreement between two people in the form of computer code.
“Smart contracts on blockchains…is an enormous game changer that every company will use,” billionaire investor Mark Cuban, who owns the Dallas Mavericks professional basketball team, told the Wall Street Journal.
The blockchain club’s plans call for the hiring of a technology director to guide students through workshops on smart contract-writing, Hsu says. There will also be a focus on the academic side of blockchain research, which will be led by a doctoral student, Lucianna Kiffer, and involve technical white papers and academic research. Faculty from Northeastern and other universities will likely be invited to talk about their research.
“That gives students the ability to understand the academic and technical underpinnings of blockchain but also have an opportunity for them to interact with professors,” Hsu says.
The group held its first informal meet-up event in late May to discuss collectible digital assets such as photos and video clips called nonfungible tokens, better known as NFTs. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey sold his first tweet as an NFT for almost $3 million earlier this year.
Even as the cryptomarket is undergoing another round of volatility, Hsu and Thompson believe it is here to stay.
“Throughout history, money was always pegged to a hard asset,” Hsu says. “Now that we are moving into the digital age, I don’t see why money couldn’t be pegged to a digital asset.”
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